July 22, 2010

I Wear My Cornell (University) Jacket Proudly



     I wear my Cornell University jacket proudly, humbly.

When I’m asked if I graduated from this prestigious university, I have an answer ready: No, not from the traditional University. I graduated from the Cornell University of hard knocks.

You see, my maiden name is Cornell. I am the daughter of the late Robert William and Nancy Briskay Cornell.

And like Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University, my father and I are descendants of the original Cornell settlers, Thomas and Rebecca Briggs Cornell. I carried the surname that came through the years from 1600, through the generations, until I married.

Mine was the typical dysfunctional family. Because my parents divorced when I was four, I didn’t re-meet my father until I was thirty-two. At the same time, I met four of his five children by his second marriage—three boys and a girl.  His fifth child, a son, from that same marriage, has no interest in meeting his father’s child from a previous marriage.

The first thing Kitty said to me when we first spoke on the telephone was that she always wanted a “big sister.” That combined with the fact that we resemble each other far more than Lee, my older sister, created an immediate bond between us.

Our father was a brilliant man who was also an alcoholic. I learned from Kitty that he was in contact with my mother through the years. In fact, much of the information I learned about my father came from Kitty.

I learned from her that his alcoholism made him a brutal man on occasion, and hearing about some of her experiences made me think that I was, perhaps, better off that he wasn’t in my life.

However, his heritage did affect my life. He was a Chief Photographer in the Navy. Did I hear about that sometimes when I was a small child? Do I recall his taking pictures of me as a small child, the only baby/toddler pictures I have in my possession? Is that the reason I picked up a camera as a teenager, and effectively never put it down?* I recently described myself as being as addicted to clicking the camera as some people are addicted to smoking. I believe that would also describe my father.

Thanks to Kitty, I now have many photographs taken by and taken of my father. And thanks to Ann, a distant cousin in Sweden, we now have pictures of our father as a baby, taken in the mid-1920s. The pictures sent to my grandmother’s family in Sweden are now being scanned and sent to Kitty on her Facebook account, which she allows me to access.

My parent’s divorce separated me from the Cornell family in Brocton, Massachusetts. The last picture I have is of six cousins. When I was reunited with two of these cousins in later life, they couldn’t identify the two girls, my sister Lee and I, in the photograph.

The divorce also lead to my living my first eight years in my maternal grandparents home**, then being raised by a single parent for several years before becoming part of a step-family, which created a move from the Atlantic seacoast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire to the metropolitan community of Buffalo, New York

Until I was into my thirties, I had no contact with the Cornells. Since then, I’ve discovered much information about the family, including the original American patriarch/matriarch, Thomas and Rebecca Cornell,*** and that Lizzy Borden**** is one of their descendents—along with Ezra Cornell and me. This combination leads me to tell people that they must decide if I am an Ezzy or a Lizzy…with all the accompanying implications!

I also learned that a marriage connected the Cornell family of New England to the Rugh family of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Mary J. Rugh Cubbage of Iowa was the granddaughter of Michael and Elizabeth Reamer Rugh from Black Lick Township in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. While she was vacationing in San Francisco, she decided to shop for a pair of shoes. The shoe salesman was Irving Rugh, from Brocton, Massachusetts. It must have been love at first sight, because Mary never returned to her home. She and Irving married, and moved to Brocton, Massachusetts, where she is buried. These were my great grandparents.*****

The irony of this story is that my husband and I are now living in Westmoreland County, not far from Black Lick Township. If someone had told us we were moving to an area where my great grandmother’s family originated, I would have laughed at them. But somehow, life has brought me full circle, back to a part of my roots, a part of my heritage.

It’s been an interesting journey learning the good and the bad, learning the numerous stories and adventures, of the Cornell family. Each study has been a course leading to my graduation from the Cornell University of Hard Knocks.

And so, I wear my Cornell paraphernalia proudly.



*Two Photographers Named Cornell

**My Childhood Home: 29 Spring St., Portsmouth, N. H.






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